Wild is based on the book by Cheryl Strayed and is an autobiographical story of her 1000+ mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2569 mile footpath running from the US/Mexico border to the Canada/US border. The film is filled with beautiful imagery and poignant scenes.
It is evident from the start that Cheryl has never done anything like this before. Her kit is new and she is barely able to lift her pack at the start of the trek. She struggles to put up a tent or cook on a camp stove and barely manages 5 miles a day to begin with. She has obviously set herself a challenge to overcome rather than taking on the hike because it is something that she enjoys.
Most of the story is told in flashback and for a while we have no idea why Cheryl is walking. The flashbacks are often out of sequence and can be confusing but do well to illustrate the fractured mental state of the main character. Other characters are deliberately lacking and never have any significant back story. The exception being Cheryl’s mother who is obviously very important to Cheryl and as such gets a more in depth treatment than any of the other supporting characters. She is played brilliantly by Laura Dern and feels like you could be the viewer’s mother as well as Cheryl’s.
Many of the people who do appear in the story are kind and helpful to Cheryl and give her emotional and occasional physical support on her quest. However, many of the scenes where she meets people on the trail are deliberately framed to make the viewer feel that Cheryl is in danger. This is obviously done to demonstrate how Cheryl, a lone woman with few survival skills, would probably have felt in those situations.
It really feels overdone though and in some cases leads to a feeling of dissatisfaction when something dramatic does not happen. This is obviously a failing on the part of the viewer; having been conditioned to expect drama or violence in those situations in a movie it becomes uncomfortable when nothing happens. But perhaps if the director had toned it down just a little we could have got the underlying feeling of distrust and fear without it being so palpable that not having a release at the end of the scene becomes uncomfortable.
As we begin to find out more about her life we start to feel sympathy with Cheryl but also find that her character is significantly flawed and at times difficult to sympathise with. The film does well though to draw a line between the old Cheryl who we find it difficult to sympathise with and the Cheryl on the trail whose hardships and setbacks we sympathise with and whose triumphs we exult in. The end of the trail results in a new Cheryl who is ready to start her life anew.
Reese Witherspoon does a great job of portraying Cheryl. Apparently specifically chosen for the role by Cheryl before there was even going to be a film, Reese is as believable as Cheryl in all her incarnations, the bumbling novice hiker at the start of the film, the blissful young woman she was before her trauma, the broken and grief stricken person before the hike starts and finally as the more confident person and competent hiker she has become by the time the hike is completed. Reese apparently did a lot of hiking as part of the film although I don’t think she covered 1000 miles!
Anyone who has ever enjoyed walking in the wilderness should enjoy this film. The locations and filming of the hiking parts are spectacular and beautiful. A lot of care has obviously been taken to find stunning locations and to maximise their impact on film. If you have ever been tempted to undertake a long trek beware, this film could very well be the thing that sets you on the path to 100+ days of hiking carrying everything on your back! Personally I think I might have a go at it when I retire, I’ve got about 30 years to get in shape!
The end of the film is slightly disappointing. It feels like when it was made they made what is in my opinion the correct decision to end the film without any further explanation of Cheryl’s life post-hike. However the finished version has a voice-over that explains what happens next which feels like a last minute afterthought.
Of course this might always have been the idea and I believe that the voice over is from Cheryl herself who was very involved in the production of the film. For me though it would have been a nicer ending to have Cheryl reach her goal and leave the rest to the imagination of the viewer.